Kibler, Matthew

Name: Matthew Kibler
Location of Study: Tours, France
Program of Study: Institut de Touraine (University of Tours)
Sponsor(s): J. Patrick Rogers

A brief personal bio:

Hello, my name is Matt, and I am currently a freshman living in Dillon Hall. In my first year here at Notre Dame, I have declared a philosophy major and am also hoping to pursue a second major in chemistry. I am also interested in French, math, and economics, and outside of class, I enjoy playing basketball, and tutoring at the Robinson Community Learning Center.

Why this summer language abroad opportunity is important to me:

While I am relatively uncertain of my academic path and can barely begin to speculate about my future career, I am thrilled to be in the SLA program and know that a summer of language learning will help me in whatever I choose to do. In philosophy, my intended major, knowledge of a second language is necessary in order to read primary sources in their original form, and is a requirement for many graduate schools. Yet even if choose to pursue a different academic path, the increased proficiency that I will gain abroad will be essential. If I study economics, a field that also interests me due to its connections with both math and history, I would love to study at Sciences Politiques in Paris, and a working oral proficiency would be essential in this environment. While I am sure that French will help me as I pursue my academic plans, I am most excited by the prospect of language learning itself. Hopefully, I summer abroad will help me to transfer my knowledge of written French into increased oral proficiency as I engage with native French speakers.

What I hope to achieve as a result of this summer study abroad experience:

The primary purpose of my trip to Tours is to improve my spoken French. I have studied French for seven years and have developed a working knowledge of the language, and hope that a summer in a francophone country will help me to transfer my knowledge of classroom French into increased oral proficiency. For me, the chance to improve my oral proficiency this summer is essential, since my goal of pursuing a dual degree in philosophy and chemistry will prevent me from studying abroad for a year in France as a junior, although I still hope to go abroad for a semester. In addition, my study in France will provide me with the chance to learn about French culture, particularly through my homestay and through the weekly excursions to different regions of France.

My specific learning goals for language and intercultural learning this summer:

1) At the end of the summer, I will be able to integrate the advanced grammatical structures that I use in written French into my conversation.

2) At the end of the summer, I will be able to identify the key differences between my own pronunciation and the pronunciation of native French speakers and will begin to use this knowledge to improve my accent and pronunciation.

3) At the end of the summer, I will be able to fluently converse about current events, particularly about French social, political, and economic issues.

4) At the end of the summer, I will feel more comfortable initiating French conversation and will use this confidence to become a more active participant in my French classes next semester.

5) At the end of the summer, my improved audio comprehension will allow me to understand French speakers with a variety of different accents.

My plan for maximizing my international language learning experience:

A large part of my language learning will take place at my homestay. Living with a native French speaker and eating breakfast and dinner in a French speaking household will give me ample opportunities to have conversations that will allow me to both build my French oral skills in a natural environment and to gain a better understanding of French culture. I also hope to apply and build my French skills while simultaneously integrating myself in the local community through volunteer work. Additionally, the proximity of the Institute to the University of Tours will create a social environment in which native French speaking students mix with students studying French as a second language. The many opportunities that I will have to interact with native French speakers will allow me to improve my general fluency and will specifically help me develop improved pronunciation.

Reflective Journal Entry 1: 

My first week in Tours has been extremely hectic, and I am afraid that I have spent much of my time wandering around the city while lost. However, in the course of my wanderings, I discovered that Tours is not only home to countless lonely but picturesque streets but also had my first prolonged interaction with native French speakers. After my classes finished today, I visited the residence of a friend, who lives approximately 30 minutes south of the city center, and when I left, I assured him that I had remembered the route and would have no problem finding my way back. However, it soon became apparent that I had no recollection of where I had come from, so I asked the first person I saw on the street where the city center was located (an admittedly vague question) and began walking. Perhaps because of the vagueness of this question or perhaps because of my difficulties understanding native French speakers, who talk much more quickly than the American born French teachers I have grown accustomed to, I ended up hopelessly lost. Luckily, I ran into an elderly French couple, and when I asked them for directions, they quickly identified me as a lost American and offered to show me to the city center as they were going into town to shop.

At first, communication was a bit difficult, since before this point, my interactions with French speakers had not consisted of more than a few words when I asked for directions, or ordered food, or responded to what others had said to me. Yet as my initial trepidation passed, I was able to communicate basic information about myself and move on to more advanced subjects. I learned about the controversial tramway construction project in Tours that created a divide between socialists and conservatives and discussed which museums and monuments in the Tours area were worth visiting. In the end, I was lucky to find that I had been heading directly away from the city center, as this gave me the chance to talk with the couple for a full forty-five minutes.

My time with the elderly French couple was pleasant and interesting, and it also led me to the realization that it is possible to understand some native French speakers without understanding all of them. The couple spoke slowly and annunciated clearly, even before they realized that I have little experience utilizing my French language training, and this gives me hope as I walk down the streets catching only snippets of ultra-fast conversations. I hope that I will be able to understand these by the end of my stay, but for now, I can rest assured knowing that there are in fact French people who I can speak to without too much difficulty.

Reflective Journal Entry 2:

This week, the four year old granddaughter of my host mother came to visit, and I was happily surprised to find that this visit supplied an unexpected vocabulary lesson. Like most four year olds, she talks quickly and quietly and often mumbles, and these factors along with the language barrier leave me struggling to understand what she says. Despite these difficulties, we have established a working relationship in which she asks me extremely basic questions and I ask her about her toys and favorite activities. Luckily, she seems to have learned that my ability to understand the French youth is rather limited, so she normally holds up her toy, states the French word for it, and then offers a brief description of what she uses it for. With her help, I have mastered the vocabulary of the yard equipment, playhouses, and natural objects, which she uses as ingredients in her playhouse kitchen.

In other news, I left Tours for the first time this weekend, biking along the Loire to the Chateau Amboise. Due to some trouble with the kilometer to mile conversion and navigational difficulties, the journey to the Chateau took almost three hours, and I was left with less than an hour to visit the chateau and village. Nonetheless, the bike riding adventure was both interesting and amusing, and both the chateau and the landscapes of the Loire were beautiful. If I have time, I would like to revisit Amboise before I leave France (the town contains both the chateau I visited and Leonardo de Vinci’s old residence), although next time, I will be taking the bus. Tomorrow, I am off to visit another chateau, Chambord, which is the largest chateau along the Loire, and I will also be stopping at either Chaumont or Cheverny. This trip will begin a busy string of weekends for me. Next weekend, I am off to Mont Saint Michel for the French independence day, and after that, I am heading to Paris.

A bientot,

Reflective Journal Entry 3:

My trip to Mont Saint Michel was great, as photos cannot capture the magnificence of the monastery. The monastery is located on the tip of a cape and is surrounding by beaches, and it was striking to see and entire town rising from the flatness of the surrounding landscape. But it was not just the landscape itself that was magnificent. The monastery itself is huge, having been expanded and reworked over many centuries, and the view from the top is breathtaking. For me, the monastery was particularly interesting, because the long time period over which it was constructed meant that it contained the many different styles of architecture that I studied during my high school art history classes. Overall, the excursion to Mont Saint Michel was my favorite part of my stay in France so far, even though the bus ride took over four hours and nearly caused me to miss the fireworks in Tours.

Of course, I have been doing more than traveling throughout France. My French studies are going well to, and I have arrived at the point where I can easily speak to friends without much thought in regard to grammar or vocabulary. Of course, speaking about more advanced subjects in class (e.g. political issues or literature) is more difficult, mostly because of a lack of vocabulary, but I have found that my vocabulary has greatly expanded since my arrival. While it is generally boring and frustrating to have to spend hours learning words for quizzes and tests in the United States, here, it is frustrating to have to spend time searching for circumlocutions in conversation to replace particular words.

While vocabulary can be learned relatively easily here, I have had to focus much more on my accent. I have had particular troubles with the sound of the letter “r” and although I have known that I have struggled with this letter for years, it was not until I finally came to France that I realized what the problem was. Apparently, the “r” sound in the French language simply does not exist in English, so I have spent a good deal of time practicing this sound and trying to work it into conversation. I have gotten several strange looks when I have been practicing the sound during the walk to school (I always look around to make sure people are not around, but sometimes I miss someone) and have had my friends laugh at me when I incorporate my now overly strong “r” sound into conversation. Nonetheless, I think my pronunciation is improving, and I hope that I will be able to fix at least this one grave pronunciation error before my departure. Overall, the best part of my classes has been the amount of time devoted to phonetics, a subject that was never extensively covered in my American French classes, and this time has led me to identify, if not necessarily easily fix, my pronunciation errors.

I cannot believe I have already been studying in France for a month, and I will be sad to have to replace my study time here (watching French TV programs) with the chemistry summer worksheets that have been building up since my arrival. But these next two weeks should be great with a trip to Paris and an unexpected visit from my uncle who will soon be vacationing in France.

Reflective Journal Entry 4:

The kebab is not exactly a French food (in fact, kebabs can apparently be found throughout Europe and in parts of the United States, although I have never seen them) but Tours is overflowing with kebab shops and it is precisely because the kebab is not a part of traditional French cuisine that I have found it particularly interesting. Kebabs are of Turkish origin, although they are a relatively new development and are not part of traditional Turkish cuisine. While the ingredients of a kebab vary among the vendors, generally, a kebab consists of a nan with lettuce, tomatoes, a choice of sauce, and meat, which is generally lamb although it can include chicken or beef. Sometimes, the nan is cooked with cheese, and in other cases, different breads are used.

Kebabs have become both my favorite lunch time food and my preferred late night snack, and I go to my favorite kebab restaurant enough that I even received lunch on the house today. However, while I love kebabs because they are delicious, cheap, and filling, the popularity of the kebab seems to be confined to young people. My host mother laments the introduction of the kebab as an attack on traditional French cuisine, and this is an understandable criticism, both on a culinary and cultural level. Kebabs obviously were not a major part of the French diet fifty years ago, but the immergence of the kebab also highlights an important change in French eating habits. Kebab restaurants are a sort of cross between fast food restaurants and sit down restaurants. It is possible to order a kebab to go and receive the meal within five minutes, but it is also possible to sit down with a menu, eat a relaxing lunch, and even drink complimentary mint tea if you eat at the same restaurant almost every day. Nonetheless, in a culture where cuisine is paramount, express meals like this represent a significant change that can be seen in other aspects of French cuisine. For example, while having a coffee at a café after lunch, I learned from the waiter that despite the abundance of cafés which line the streets, the café’s role in French society is slowly diminishing. Formerly, cafés were centers of social life for all French people, and it was quite normal for people to visit them not only to have something to drink but also to interact with the regular clientele. To some degree, cafés still serve this role, but from my observations, most patrons appear to be on the elderly side.

In fact, even in the French household, it appears that eating habits have undergone a significant change. I am lucky to be living with a host mother who is an excellent cook and prepares a four course meal for dinner each day (and lunch on the weekends), and she notes that among many other host families, this is not the case. My friends who live with younger host families note that their dinners are not all that different from American meals, which generally consist of fewer larger plates and are eaten in less time. Somehow, I have moved from a discussion of the kebab to a discussion of cafés and my own dinner, but I hope that I have highlighted the fact that to some degree, traditional French eating habits have undergone change in recent years.

Reflective Journal Entry 5:

My trip to Paris this weekend was great! Although this is my second time in France, I had never been to Paris, and it was great to see not only many of the most famous monuments but also the city in general. Even when I was wandering lost or aimlessly through the Parisian streets, I always seemed to stumble upon a beautiful garden or magnificent building. I was very lucky to be in a city with so many randomly scattered attractions, because I also happened to be in Paris for the Tours de France, which finished on Sunday, and because of this, much of my time was spent taking detours and attempting to avoid massive crowds of people. Of course, while the bicycle race may have made it more difficult to visit all of Paris’ monuments in a timely fashion, I was quite pleased that the race was in Paris. Somehow, despite the fact that I did not arrive early, I managed to find a place in the front row when the people in front of me left, and I had a great view of the riders as they looped through the center of Paris. I even managed to snap a picture of Bradley Wiggins, the eventual winner, which was more difficult than it sounds because the riders seem to travel as fast as cars on the flat streets of Paris.

Aside from going to the Tours de France and visiting the buildings that I wandered into, I also tried to attend all of Paris’ most touristy attractions, and ended up behaving in a stereotypical American fashion. I climbed the Arc de Triumph along with the Eiffel Tower, visited the Cathedral of Notre Dame, walked up and down the Champs Elysees, and climbed up to the Sacre Coeur. It was very interesting to visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame, since I studied it extensively in my art history class, and the Sacre Coeur was great too. I visited the basilica while mass was taking place, and while I was there primarily to see the building, I could not help noticing the immaculate pronunciation of the priest, especially since he clearly articulated the “r” sounds that I have been struggling with. However, I think that my favorite monument was the Eiffel Tower. I went there at sunset, and it was amazing to see the city both before it got dark and when it was glittering with lights.

Of course, not all of my experiences were entirely positive. When I arrived at a metro stop called “Bastille,” my natural reaction was to ask the nearest French person where the Bastille was located, because it was not in sight. Laughing, they responded that it had been torn down hundreds of years ago. Apparently, I never considered that the anger that led to the storming of the Bastille eventually boiled over in the destruction of the hated symbol of the monarchy. As the woman laughed at me, I realized just how clueless of a tourist I was. But considering that I am staying in France for six weeks, I figured I could get away with this for a weekend, and admired the monumental tower that marked the location of the now vanished Bastille without too much shame.

Reflective Journal Entry 6:

Whenever French people begin talking about Americans, their first remark always seems to be a witty observation about the United States’ obesity problem. My best French friend describes Americans as having “a hamburger in one hand and a soda in the other.” My host mother comments on the fact that Americans not only devour massive amounts of food, but also mentions that vegetables are mostly lacking from the American diet. It seems that any conversation about Americans must start with food, and a few comments about Americans’ tendencies to be loud and obnoxious before it can move to more interesting issues.

I found the commentary of my French friend particularly fascinating. He described his image of an American as a wealthy tourist who does not necessarily speak French, which seems to be somewhat accurate based on my experiences here in France. But despite this slightly negative stereotype of individual Americans, my friend said that the United States as a whole was well respected in France due its political and economic power, especially its involvement in many wars. This seemed to be a bit of an odd reason to respect the USA to me, especially given the fact that my friend is a liberal who supports Obama (like most young French people), but when I asked other French people about what he had said, they were generally in agreement. However, there are of course people who do not cast the United States’ actions in such a favorable light. The elderly French woman who I walked with while lost during my first week here expressed disgust with the United States aggressive foreign policy, stating that a constant stream of wars would do little to help the world. In fact, there are many French people who believe that wars that were generally supported in the United States at their outset, such as the war in Afghanistan, were started unnecessarily and without motivation. Most interestingly, attitudes towards America’s wars do not vary along party lines in the same way they do in the United States. From my experience, I found that the same older generations who tend to complain about the socialist control of government in France have the most negative attitudes about US foreign policy, which is obviously a contrast with the United States, where conservatives generally favor defense more than liberals.

Another thing that I found interesting was the popularity of American products here in France. Before coming here, I knew that American songs and movies were hugely popular here, but I was surprised to find that things like American clothing brands were also hugely popular. I could not help laughing when I saw teenagers sporting Franklin and Marshall and UCLA sweatshirts, and when I asked my French friend about this, he explained that these universities were not hugely popular in France, but that a clothing company used the names simply because they were American. My French friend also explained that many people in Tours make the two hour voyage to Paris to purchase American clothing that is difficult to find in France. Considering the fact that the French are generally thought to dress better than Americans, I found this bizarre. Still, it was quite interesting to note that while many people I talked to found the United States overbearing and aggressive, they also do things to try and imitate Americans.

Reflective Journal Entry 7:

After my six weeks in France, I am at last back in the United States. My trip was incredible and I think it had a profound influence on both my French language skills and my interest in continuing my French language studies. But before I talk about my own experiences, I would like to talk about an issue that was omnipresent throughout my stay in France.

French culture is cherished in France, and a large part of this culture is the French language. However, like all languages, the French language is constantly in the process of changing, and I found that this change provoked a wide range of opinions and commentaries. I first learned about this issue while in French class, when my teacher explained how several of the subjunctive tenses were becoming antiquated. In his opinion, this was a positive development, as the meaning of the sentence and the ability of the listener to understand it was not affected by this change. Later, another of my French teachers described the loss of pronunciation differences that distinguish the future tense from the conditional tense. She seemed to lament this change, although she contritely admitted that she had in fact started to fall victim to occasional lapses in pronunciation. Intrigued by the different attitudes towards the evolution of the French language that I encountered at school, I brought up the issue at dinner with my host mother. She personally was against the loss of what she described as pure French, but while she could accept changes in pronunciation and variations in accents, she explained that the thing that bothered her most was the introduction of English words into the French language. For example, she explained that expressions like “super cool” had replaced the traditional French words with the same meaning, “chouette” and “genial.” For her, this was a problem, but throughout my time in France, native French speakers who were my own age explained that words with English origins were necessary in informal modern language.

My exploration of the evolution of the French language continued in Paris, where I learned that the Academie Francais, an organization made up of thirty of France’s greatest authors, was officially in charge of regulating the French language and introducing new words. And based on my conversation with a resident of Paris, it seems that the Academy is firmly in support of the conservation of traditional French. For example, I learned that the Academy took over 6 months to formally accept the introduction of the word “Ipod” into the French language. Similarly, the Academy created a new word, “ordinateur,” to replace the English word computer. However, despite the Academy’s efforts, I cannot help but wonder what will become of the French language as more and more young people adopt words that are not present in traditional French.

Now for several thoughts on my trip as a whole along with some reflections on my language learning experience. Overall, my summer was great, and I am astonished that I was able to learn as much French as I did while having as much fun as I did. Looking back on my experience, I feel that the work I put in the first two weeks, when I forced myself to approach native French speakers despite my initial trepidation and used lengthy French circumlocutions even when speaking with native English speakers laid the foundations for a successful and enjoyable learning experience. Once I became used to the occasional difficulties I had expressing myself, and of course, improved my oral French to the point where these difficulties did not greatly interfere with what I was trying to communicate, I was able to speak French during the rest of my stay without the same mental fatigue that caused me to yearn to speak English in the beginning. Thus, by the end of the trip, a conversation with friends in French was simply a conversation, not a tedious exercise in French expression. Of course, this does not mean that I am now able to speak French without though, but instead means that my level of oral French is advanced enough that I can formulate grammatically correct sentences and make myself understood without significant pauses in my speech.

While I made great strides with my oral production in France, the trip also helped me to identify my language weaknesses. Unfortunately, despite the fact that I spoke almost exclusively French throughout my trip, many of my conversations were held with non-native French speakers. Thus, oral comprehension is still difficult when listening to a native speaker due to the French accent and the shockingly large number of words per minute that native French speakers use. Luckily, oral comprehension is quite easy to improve in the United States. For the past week and a half, as I have attempted to do organic chemistry problems, I have found myself straying to the website of France 24, a French news station. In my opinion, this barely qualifies as procrastination, since I can stay up to date about current events and improve my French while simply sitting in front of my computer and occasionally stopping to look up vocabulary words. While my discovery of this site has led to minor improvements in my French oral comprehension in a mere ten days, it has unfortunately had disastrous results for my chemistry problem sets…

The fact that I have spent a good portion of my brief time back in the United States watching French news programming is reflective of perhaps the most important result of my trip. My time in France taught me that I really like French culture, and showed me that learning a second language does not necessarily require reading the works of Proust and Sartre while writing lengthy essays. Instead, I was able to learn simply by consciously attempting to understand what was being said around me, by attempting to imitate the accents I heard, and of course, by going to several hours of classes each day. While my French greatly improved, there were few times when I felt like I was actually engaged in tedious academic work, and these times became rarer and rarer as I spent more time in France. Given my experience, I have decided that I want to return to France for a semester abroad my junior year if at all possible, and will seriously consider applying for programs that will allow me to spend a year teaching in France upon graduation. In fact, if I was not already overwhelmed by trying to fit both a philosophy and chemistry major into my four years at Notre Dame, I think that my trip would have convinced me to add a major in French (which of course, may still happen, as my current academic plan is a bit tenuous). And of course, I can’t wait to get back to my French classes at Notre Dame, where I will surely be more talkative after a freshman year in which I was at times hesitant to attempt to speak. Really, the best thing I can say about the SLA program is that it has turned me from a student who simply takes French classes into a student who is very excited about continuing to study French.

Postcard(s) from Abroad:

Reflection on my summer language abroad experience overall:

The SLA grant program is awesome, and as someone who was a bit hesitant to throw myself into an entirely unknown country by myself at the beginning of the summer as a non-French major, I can say that the program had a vast impact on the way I view language learning and its importance.  To anyone even thinking about the program, I would like to say that the short application and mild stress of immersion are definitely worth it!  My language learning motivation has skyrocketed because of my summer program, largely because I wanted to improve my French in order to have the ability to communicate with non-English speakers.  Being in France gave me the opportunity to learn about French culture, cuisine, and politics simply by talking to native speakers, and this approach to French provided a different, more dynamic angle than coursework for French classes.

Reflection on my language learning and intercultural gains:

I am very satisfied with the improvements that my French showed over the summer.  I am a much more proficient and confident French speaker than I was at the beginning of the summer, and feel that I can express my opinions on most topics without too much difficulty.  The summer abroad experience was particularly helpful in identifying and correcting my pronunciation errors, as constant exposure to native French speakers made me much more conscious of the sounds that I must work to correct.  In addition, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the language learning process was made much easier, and a bit more passive, by immersion.  In France, I did not worry too much about errors in structure or grammar when I was speaking, but instead would attempt to converse in a fluent manner.  However, I was also able to reflect on my past conversations during walks to school or down time in order to identify and fix my errors.  Along with improving my French, the trip helped me gain a better understanding of a wide variety of aspects of French culture, from the different views on the French language that correspond to age, to opinions on the French political system and differences between American and French mealtime, and this was largely due to my interactions with my host mother.

How I plan to use my language and intercultural competences in the future:

Before my SLA program, I was unsure of where I wanted my French language skills to take me.  However, my summer studies have given me both the confidence and desire to return to France in a more independent capacity.  Next year, I hope to directly enroll at Diderot in Paris, largely because I would feel comfortable being independent and having to speak French after my summer.  Additionally, I would like to return to France to teach English after graduation, through an exchange program with the French government, or if possible, with a Marshall Fellowship.  I have also looked into the possibility of summer internships in France, as they would help further prepare me further prepare me for these experiences.  For all of these opportunities, I feel that my summer in France will be critical, as it will aid my candidacy and will give me the language skills necessary to succeed when I return to France.